Thoughts on Teaching – Teaching in a Pandemic – Asynchronous vs. Synchronous Hybrid Courses – 02/18/2021
As things have “normalized” in this Spring semester, a decision was made that we needed to teach all students at the same time. So, instead of doing what I did last semester, which was splitting my hybrid courses into two different cohorts meeting on separate days with those who could attend neither essentially doing the course completely online, I now have only one session a week for my hybrid courses, and every student either needs to be there in person or on Zoom.
I have gone back and forth on whether that is a good thing or not. I will definitely say that, when presented with this idea, I was not in favor of it at all. In fact, it would be safe to say that I both hated the idea and dreaded having to do it. By the end of the fall semester, that previous model had me teaching only to about 3-5 students in person each session, leaving about 75% of the students essentially using my hybrid course as an online course. There are definitely reasons for this —
- For some students, they were either quarantined or tested positive, meaning they would be out of in-person class for 2-3 weeks depending on when it occurred.
- For others, as it became obvious that in-person classes were leading to spikes in exposures and cases, they chose not to come to class to stay safe.
- I also had a couple of students who were taking care of relatives or had relatives in the hospital, and they did not want to be in public for fear of exposing those they were taking care of. One student noted that his/her parent was in the hospital, and if he/she left the hospital, he/she would not be allowed back in without a quarantine period.
- And, finally, I very simply had students who had signed up for a hybrid course but realized that they could do the course completely online and decided they would rather do that. Two thoughts on this one:
- First, we were specifically asked to have a fully online version of the course ready to go so that if we did get shut down, we would have alternatives for them ready to go. As that alternative was up and ready to go, I let my students know that they could move online-only when they thought it was necessary. For a number of students (especially those who might have dropped the course otherwise), this was a good alternative.
- Second, and this is a much broader thought on it, it allowed for students to change their minds on what they wanted out of the class. Every semester I have 2-3 students who at some point come to me and say they would rather be in my hybrid course if they are online or would rather be in my online course if they are hybrid. This is because they either realized one mode did not work for them or their circumstances had changed and the other mode worked better. It was kind of nice to have this alternative of a course that could be either. (As a note, I am going to explore this idea more in a later blog post.)
This semester, because of the decision that I said at the beginning, we have had to move away from that model of allowing for different modes. Now, we have synchronous-only classes. Every session of my hybrid course this semester has all of my students in it, either face-to-face in front of me or online via Zoom. It has certainly been a mixed bag so far on working in this format.
I’m going to explore more in how it’s going and what thoughts I have on the format over the next couple of blog posts.
It is no coincidence that my last post here in the blog was just before I started up teaching again. It is my standard online summer class, and so there is no direct effect on my teaching from the pandemic except for the switch to take-home tests since our testing center is closed.
However, life has been busy beyond just the teaching. So, let’s catch up on a few things (maybe this one should be called “Life in a Pandemic.”
- I have been attending a number of workshops, conferences, and meetings (all virtual). I don’t think I have ever had as much choice of things that I can attend related to teaching, and I have been trying to do as many as I can, as free and professional development are two words that do not often go together.
- My youngest daughter is at a Montessori school. The school started a summer session in early July. They offered it for free to help the students catch up on what they might have missed from all of the disruptions in the spring. It lasted two weeks, then they shut it down for a week because one person tested positive, then it came back for 2 days, and then it was shut down for good when our county shut down all public and private (but not religious private) schools until September 28.
- My oldest daughter, who is entering her senior year of high school, was given the choice between going face-to-face or online this coming school year. We left that decision up to her. What she decided was to go online-only. When looking at all of the guidelines, she thought it was too uncertain to even try face-to-face. Of course, as noted in the previous point, her school will also be affected by the online only until September 28, but she was going to do that anyway.
- My sons, who both just finished up their freshman years at 4-year universities, have made the decision to go to my community college for the moment. I’m not going to go into the reasons specifically, but this was something we had all been hashing out over the summer. It is definitely hard to justify paying the money for a university (especially the one going to a private university) that may or may not be running and may or may not be having in-person classes. Both may stay as long as two years at my community college, as they can largely get what they need there for a while.
- Finally, there’s the question of what I’m doing in the fall. There is no official word from my community college that anything has changed. The schedule that students are signing up for now is the same as the one published prior to the pandemic with some more online classes added. I am scheduled to teach 2 hybrid sections and 3 online sections, which would be my normal Fall load. But there is just too much uncertainty to know how all of it is going to play out. I’m in better shape then many, as I have a fully ready online class, and that is over half of what I am teaching anyway. I do not know yet if my hybrid will actually be a class that meets face-to-face or not, but that is where we are going so far. With all of the uncertainty, that’s really all I can say at this point.
So, there we go. Everybody in the family is up in the air. All six of us are back to living in the house, although that’s not as much of an adjustment as some, since the boys were only gone from the beginning of the Fall semester last year through Spring Break. I guess we shall see if we get any more clarity as we move forward.
This is the first substantive post of my new series on student reflection. I have detailed where this series comes from in my previous post introducing the series.
In this post, I am going to describe the student reflection assignment that I have used for 4 semesters now. Later posts in the series will deal with why I use student reflection (Part 2), the student response to these reflections (Part 3), my thoughts on how they are going and what they can help with (Part 4), and then what use they can be in our new pandemic world (Part 5).
I started using student reflection as a part of my hybrid classes starting in Fall 2018. For the first year of using them, they were more aimed at making sure the students were paying attention in class, but they slowly morphed into something more than just a reflection on the class. Over the summer of 2019, I made the decision to move student reflection into my online course and to change up the use of them in the hybrid class.
In Part 2 of this series, I will delve more into why I use them and why I made the changes. For now, I just want to give you the format of them.
Each week, my students are asked to submit a response to the following 5 questions. I have no specific word count on this assignment, and I grade only on if they complete it.
- What did you do in the class in the past week? (After the first week, I add a second question: How does that match up with what you said you would do in the previous week’s reflection?)
- What are you planning on doing for this class in the upcoming week?
- This question relates to something going on inside the course. This can be something like:
- Have you started working on a particular assignment yet?
- Reminder to make sure they know something is coming up, like the drop deadline.
- Question about how they responded to a specific assignment, especially if I am trying something new.
- This question relates to something going on outside of the course, such as:
- How are the other courses going that you are taking?
- If it is later in the semester, what advice would they now give themselves at the beginning of the semester?
- What is the best piece of advice they have received about succeeding in college?
- What one change would they make in the course if they had the ability?
- Are you planning on attending/participating in this particular thing going on at the college?
- What are your plans for after you finish the course/finish at the college
- And, especially after the COVID-19 shutdown, this question became one about how they were doing and if they needed help with anything.
- Lastly, is there anything else you want to tell me, either about yourself, about the class, or about something interesting in your life? This last question is your free space to write whatever you want to. If you do not want to write anything, that is fine, but I wanted to give everyone some space each week to write whatever they want with no judgment on my part. I will read it, but that is all, unless you ask me for advice or have questions.
So, for each student (I start out the semester with about 200-220 and end up with about 170-180), I get a response back to these questions every week. As noted at the beginning of this post, I will be exploring aspects of this assignment as I move forward with this series.
One of the issues the I keep coming back to in thinking about the past semester is how we teach online. Much has been made of the difference between online teaching (which I have been doing for over a decade now) and remote learning that was forced on everyone in March of this year.
The difference between the two is vast, as a true online course is one that needs to be created from the ground up as an online course and cannot be a quick move over of face-to-face content to an online environment.
One of the real differences that I noted in the approaches to online vs. remote teaching is the question of how the learning takes place. In my online course (and as echoed by my friend Mike Smith at McNeese State University), I have taught almost exclusively asynchronously. Most of the design books that I have read and resources that I have accessed over the years have confirmed that this is the best format for fully online instruction, as it allows for the flexibility in completing work and interacting with material that many online students are looking for.
Before I go any further, however, I do want to provide some definitions here:
- Synchronous Learning – Learning that takes place in a format where both the instructor and the learner are in the same location in time and/or space. This can be a traditional classroom format or something like a Zoom session that delivers content in real-time.
- Asynchronous Learning – Learning that takes place where the instructor and learner are separated in time and/or space. This is seen very often in online courses, where resources and assignments are provided for students to access and complete on their own time.
As I stated above, my online class is completely asynchronous. The students are given the resources, assignments, lectures, textbook information, assessments, and discussion space all online with no expectation that there is a specific time or place where they will all come together for instructions. This does not mean I am not involved, as I generally work inside my classrooms for 1-4 hours each day, depending on the time of the semester, and am constantly monitoring both my classrooms and other messaging that I get from students outside of the classroom (such as email).
The only real point of direct, face-to-face interaction would be office hours. I also do hold more traditional office hours. This is a bit of sticking point for me, as my department had up to March of this year not allowed online office hours, which seems to me to be a blind spot to where our students actually are. Since March and probably for a while after, we now can have online office hours, which would actually be the only really synchronous material for any students who would come into those office hours and get instruction or have questions answered by me in real time.
One thing that I do differently than a lot of people in their teaching is hybrid learning. I have been teaching hybrid classes for about 6 years now, and my model is roughly a 70/30 model, with 70% of the learning taking place online and 30% in class. Thus, like what I noted above, all of the online portion for the hybrid course is asynchronous. That 30% is the hour and fifteen minutes that I meet with them each week, and that is the only synchronous portion of the course.
My hybrid students are more likely also to come to physical office hours than traditional online students, meaning that they do also have those synchronous options.
The Change in Learning with the Pandemic
As we moved to remote learning in the pandemic, everyone had to scramble to figure out how to make those changes. I have already detailed some of this in previous posts in this Thoughts on Teaching in a Pandemic series. Since a lot of those who were guiding this move were focused on how to move the face-to-face classes to online, much of the assumption was that the remote learning would be at least somewhat synchronous. Since this is the assumption that many have of what online teaching looks like when they have not taught online before, I saw this all over the place – the assumption that we would all just schedule Zoom sessions during our normal class time and then lecture to the students as we would have at the same time and same place.
For better or for worse, this has become part of the story of what has happened – with a narrative emerging of how challenging, or even ineffective, Zoom learning (as it so often came to be) is. In my opinion that is because online learning is not meant to be synchronous. There can certainly be successful synchronous elements in an online course, especially if students are notified up front and early that there will be certain times or certain assignments that are going to require their presence. I don’t use any, but I know of a number of successful online instructors that do use synchronous discussions, group work, and the like in online classes. However, even those classes remain heavily asynchronous overall.
So, What’s the Point?
Why am talking about this somewhat weedy subject? I think that why so many faculty and students were unsatisfied by what they saw in the spring of 2020 is because of this synchronous vs. asynchronous distinction. I have heard, even from my own sons in college, that the learning situation in the spring was not very good. Both of my sons recounted having to get up for 8am classes from home and then sitting there with a lot of random banter, technical problems, and then not learning much overall. Now, could I say that every class experience I have had has been worthwhile and engaging, but there is something different about trying to do it online vs. face-to-face. Especially for my son who is going to a very (VERY!) expensive private university, he felt he was getting very little value out of his education for those last months. A lot of the “value” comes from being on campus and having access to everything there. Sitting at home in front of a screen when that is not what you signed up for is going to be rough no matter what. The insistence on holding classes at the same time and in the same format as before seems to me to be a recipe for discontent overall. It’s not the fault of the professor or of the university, as everyone had to figure out how to do this in a week or two. So, if it didn’t go well, then it just didn’t, but at least everyone knew that we were all doing our best in a difficult time.
What I worry about in the summer and fall. The easy path will be to try to continue on as if nothing really happened and feel that we can all just turn on a dime and teach online again if a second wave breaks out. I only hope that some lessons have been learned about what works and what doesn’t. This summer has to be one of reflection and reworking of courses for everyone. If change isn’t made, it is the students who will suffer. Both of my sons have said that they are worried if it will be worth it to go back to their four-year universities if it is going to look like it did in the spring. I am certainly not trying to say that the question of synchonous or asynchronous is the only issue in making a strong course that can be presented online only or moved online if needed, but it is an issue that needs to considered by everyone who wants to teach in any online format for the future.
As noted in my previous post, I am continuing my reflecting on the previous semester.
I had previously looked at lessons 1-3 that she had identified. In this post, I will look at the other two lessons that she was talking about.
4. High-stakes assessments are overrated.
This one is definitely one that I believe in completely. As she said, “For a while now, teaching experts have advised that students learn best from frequent low-stakes quizzes and other assignments — either in addition to, or in place of, traditional midterms, final exams, and term papers.” I have been working in this direction myself, moving more and more toward many smaller assignments rather than a few big ones. This transition was already coming for me prior to this move remote teaching, and I was very glad that I had started on that path already.
The large numbers of low-stakes assignments gives my students a lot of opportunities to work through the material in ways that keep them engaged throughout the semester and working fairly constantly on the material. Rather than being graded in 2-4 high-stakes assignments, the students can have their grade evolve through the semester. It allows them to work regularly with the material rather than put their attention (and grade) on a couple of assignments where they have to memorize and perform well in a couple of sessions throughout the semester. In a high-stakes environment, the students pass/fail based upon just their performance in a few points of the semester. Now, this is not to say that some students do not do well in these types of assessments nor that there is no value in testing the students on their knowledge. It is just that many of students do not perform well in these circumstances for reasons beyond their own control. It is not about being good students or bad students but about being able to perform in a very specific circumstance.
I had already come to the conclusion myself that I would rather see how my students progress through the semester and learn versus seeing how well they can memorize a specific set of information in a single sitting. This was even more true in the high-stress environment of last semester. Students already under stress and unsure about their economic and physical futures don’t need to have the added stress on them of a high-stakes assessment. Students already freak out about exams, and even the best students can struggle. Add on the pandemic, and you have an even more perfect storm of disaster for most students.
5. Student mental health will be on my mind.
This one became completely clear to me in these last couple of months. This is something that I have largely ignored in the first decade or so of my teaching career. It is only since attending a couple of sessions at conferences in the last couple of years that I have become more and more aware of the struggles that they are under. The research is showing that more and more of our students are financially insecure, food insecure, and housing insecure. It is harder for them to succeed academically if they are struggling in every other way.
At a community college, even more than at many 4-year institutions, our students are working, taking care of families, and just trying to get by. The pandemic and the implosion of society just piled on top of what else they had going on. I saw it myself, as did many of my fellow faculty members. We saw many students who continued on with out major problems, but some of those who were already on the edge were pushed over the edge by these circumstances. By not seeing the problems previously, it allowed us to largely ignore the ongoing problem. We have to consider the issues and problems from the beginning, not just address them when they come to the surface.
So where does that leave us? I can really only leave this reflection with her words, as I can’t say it any better than she did:
“If the Covid-19 crisis ends up making me a better-prepared, more supportive, and more agile teacher, so much the better. And if it spurs our institutions to put more priority on serious collaboration between administrators and faculty members, backed up by the best evidence and research out there — well, we couldn’t ask for more. I’m not one to say that this tragedy is full of silver linings. However, I intend to come through it stronger, and I hope our whole profession will, too.”
How are you reacting to the crisis, and how will it change you?
I am, of course, not the only one out there who is reflecting back on what teaching through the pandemic was like. I have already discussed some general thoughts on the transition and on how the students reacted in previous blog posts here. I have been consuming various pieces of media, from blogs to webinars to podcasts, where everyone has been reflecting on the changes and how the last couple of months have gone.
Probably the most direct takeaway from the piece is what she said about how the transition – “In short, we did the job we signed up to do — under conditions that none of us signed up for. And, unfortunately, it looks like many of us will be in the same predicament come September.” To me, that is really the story of this time. I won’t say at all that everything was the best at all, but I do think that I did a pretty good job in keeping up. I also feel like I actually did more work in the last month and a half than I normally do.
In looking at her 5 lessons learned, I can see some parallels in my own experience.
1. They’ve gotten a bad rap, but Zoom classes can be rewarding.
While I am not so sure about Zoom classes specifically, I found her discussion of the synchronous vs. asynchronous debate interesting. I know for a fact that some of our faculty had never even heard those words with relation to education prior to this, but it became a key point with the transition. My own online course is exclusively asynchronous, but I added in Zoom office hours for them. I have done online office hours before, with only a very minimal participation by the online students. This experience was no different, as they were just online office hours, not a specific session of delivering information. I had not a single student from my three online sections attend any of the online office hours in Zoom, which pretty much matches up with my previous experience. As there was no synchronous component of my online course, there was no expectation on the students that there would be one after, and there was apparently no interest in the new addition for them.
Now, of course, the hybrid class had its own synchronous component of meeting once a week in person. I switched over that time to a Zoom session for each hybrid section, but I did not make it mandatory for attendance. This is largely because of a recognition that many of my students might not be capable of making a session on Zoom, and I didn’t want to penalize them. I had a number of students with connection issues (as in poor internet access), who had family issues or conflicting school times for their kids, or were called in to now work at the time they would have had class. I had one student out of 25 attend for one of my hybrid classes and 4-5 students out of 21 attend out of the other hybrid class. So, there was some small demand, and I gave participation points for coming on and talking about the material. Far more students chose to participate in discussion forums than in the Zoom sessions overall.
2. Have a pivot plan.
This is exactly what we’ve been told to do for the fall. We don’t know if we will be in person, online, or a mix of the two. Right now, our schedule looks exactly as it would any fall, and we have been told that any decision about changes to what we do in the fall won’t come until June. However, the more general messaging is that we need to be ready to pivot and that we all should be developing courses that can be both in-person and online, possibly even at the same time. In many ways, this matches the new thing I have heard quite a bit about in the last week – HyFlex courses. While we won’t have any courses scheduled as HyFlex, the model essentially has students given the opportunity to take the course either online or face-to-face as they want without losing anything either way.
3. Student goals will take center stage.
I will be honest that I did not change enough in my course to affect the student side of things. I already did things like student reflection essays (more on this in a later blog post), things that are already really student-centered. In relation to a lot of the rest of what we were asked to do, my course met the idea of student goals taking center stage before the crisis and continued to do so afterwards.
I will come back soon with the final two, as this is already getting long as it is. What are your thoughts, either as a teacher or students in this new environment?
My last post was a general reflection on my teaching during a pandemic. It was on my own experience and how it affected me. Today, I want to talk about how my students responded to the changes that came this semester.
- As I noted in my last post, the online students’ experience didn’t change a huge amount, but really the experiences of both the online and hybrid students did change.
- The majority of students expressed a feeling of overwhelm and anxiety to me with the switch. For a lot of the hybrid students, they were taking hybrid because they did not want an online class, but they said that since the class did not change significantly that it was not a major issue.
- For my classes, the fact that we lost a week and had to make things up pushed assignments closer together.
- As well, while I do think students often take Spring Break to do some catch up in their classes in a normal semester, we extended the Spring Break by a week this year. This 2-week Spring Break was very unproductive for them because of how the world was overturned. Not only that, but it also took longer for them to get back into working on classes at the level they had previously.
- So, even though I moved some assignments to extra credit rather than required and moved the exam to a take-home, there still was a feeling that they were doing more than usual in my class each week.
- However, while many said they were working more for my class, almost all who were in multiple classes said that their workloads for school had gone up even more for other classes. I heard many say that the result of changing online out of face-to-face classes was that the expectations and workload seemed to go up dramatically. I have no insight beyond that, as few said why that changed happened and I did not want to pry into what other faculty were doing, but the universal feeling was that classes that were face-to-face that went online got both more demanding and more difficult to complete.
- Here is what one student said: “I got really behind this last unit, having more than one online class (since they all got put online) has been really hard to keep up with all the work. And effectively giving each class time in your day is very challenging, So with that being said, I did not participate in this discussion forum. I hope no one else is in the same boat and struggling to stay a float with all their classes being online! I miss face-to-face classes so much. A lot of my classes are 10 times the work online. Finish Strong!”
- A majority of students reported difficulties in prioritizing school work.
- For some it was because they were now working more because they are essential workers or now had time off to add hours to their jobs.
- As one online student put it: “I personally have 2 classes online including this one, but besides having these classes I have been working almost every day including weekends now because I have more responsibility for my projects. the quarantine didn’t stop the company I am working for because of the nature of what we do. However, I have been feeling like I am not productive enough and so I started to do some online courses, reading new books and also I started to do the extra credit assignment. So far I have tried to keep a daily schedule to keep up.”
- For others, the loss of jobs meant that they now had financial strains that impacted their ability to do their work for classes.
- I did not keep track of everyone who reported this, but I had a number of students tell me that either they had lost work or that people in their families had lost work.
- For some it was because they were now working more because they are essential workers or now had time off to add hours to their jobs.
- What I heard the most, however, was that the isolation was quite intense for the younger students who were now stuck at home with their families, especially those who relied on leaving the house to get work done because of chaotic home environments.
- For those who are older and have kids, they had the same experience that I have had – namely that I am now educating my kids and/or trying to keep them focused and entertained. We are now at home all the time, fixing way more meals at home, and having to run all sorts of educational and Zoom sessions for my kids. Those with kids noted that the shift to having kids at home and having to educate/monitor them was a primary distraction to getting real work done.
- As one online student put it: “Hello! I hope everyone has been staying safe and healthy as we are coming to the end of the semester! Summer is almost here and thankfully this week most states are gradually opening back up again so hello sun! These past few weeks have been crazy at home though I haven’t been working from there…So while having a family at home while I was working a bit more than usual school seems like a lot as all of my classes are coming to an end. This class has been great I have been working hard in this unit 5 I am actually almost done with it!!! I think the most stressful part about this class at the moment is the Final paper only because all of my other classes have a final paper due the week too. Anyways I hope everyone is doing great any comments about unit 5 or the paper please leave I’m interested to know where others are at the moment in the course.”
Those are just some of my thoughts about how the students have reacted to the situation in my own experience. For those of you who are teaching or for those taking classes, what was your experience?
We have come to the end of our semester of craziness. The breaking of COVID-19 and the push to abrupt remote teaching at Spring Break made this a semester like no other. I was luckily more able to make the transition than many, as 3/5 of my sections were already online. The other two sections were my hybrid sections, and those are already about 2/3 online in the way that I teach them. Thus, for me, the personal transition was not as hard as it was for many.
There were still some challenges, for sure.
- My three online sections were still somewhat impacted, as the extended Spring Break moved their assignments back a week and that pushed closer together a lot of the assignments for the last part of the class. It also grouped together my grading more and made it to where I did not have as much time to get comments back to students on their thesis and outline so they could work with them on the final paper.
- As I noted above, the hybrid classes were already about 2/3 online. It was, however, one of the most important components, the face-to-face discussions, that got dropped. To make up for that, I substituted online discussions each week and a weekly optional Zoom session. These went reasonably well. I don’t think it went nearly as well as if we had been in class, but it was at least acceptable. The big thing that I noted was that I did not have nearly as much time to devote to participating with them, as the pushing together of assignments that I noted with the online class happened here as well. I was grading more, and because of that, I was doing less other things in the class. There is another reason as well, that I will put in the third note here.
- The thing I spent an unusual amount of time on is the helping of others in the department and keeping up with both the changes and trends in higher education broadly and with COVID-19 in specific. My energy level and attention level were drained by both of these, and that also contributed to me not interacting as much in discussions with my students. I still did all of my Zoom sessions, held my online office hours, and answered student questions in a timely manner. I would even say that I got things graded faster than I would normally at the end of the semester. But I definitely participated less in discussion forums, both with my online and hybrid students. In fact, in grading them in the last couple of days, I see that I missed a number of places that I might have responded, either with information or with prompting questions to get them to go further.
Working on all of this from home was also a challenge, of course. While working from home did take out many expenses in time and gas for travel, sitting at the office, and eating meals/snacks there, there were also costs to being at home. I have four kids, two in college, one in high school, and one in elementary school. Everybody was home (and still are) since the start of Spring Break. The three older kids have had their work to do, but they are relatively self-sufficient with their work. We are, however, full-time teaching our 7-year-old. Her Montessori school has been sending home packets to complete, and they are keeping us busy.
Being at home all the time is not a big problem for my own work load, since so much of it was online already. But it still was quite different from the norm. How has everyone else’s experience been? For those of you who teach, what was the impact on your teaching?
I will be back for a couple of more of these as I reflect on the semester and start preparing for the next one, whatever it might bring.